Down and Out

From Down and Out in Paris and London, by George Orwell:
“Then the question arises, Why are beggars despised? – for they are despised, universally. I believe it is for the simple reason that they fail to earn a decent living. In practice nobody cares whether work is useful or useless, productive or parasitic; the sole thing demanded is that it shall be profitable. In all the modern talk about energy, effiency, social service, an the rest of it, what meaning is there except ‘Get money, get it legally*, and get a lot of it’? Money has become the grand test of virtue. By this test beggars fail, and for it they are despised. If one could earn even ten pounds a week at begging, it would become a respectable profession immediately. A beggar, looked at realistically, is simply a business man, getting his living, like other business men, in the way that comes to hand. He has not, more than most modern people, sold his honour; he has merely made the mistake of choosing a trade at which it is impossible to grow rich.”
* The “get it legally” qualifier strikes me as conspicuously off the mark, but perhaps boringly so.
This paragraph made an impression on me when I was reading Down and Out last Christmas. It was appealing for what I suppose to be obvious reasons (e.g., I resent capitalist culture because, first and foremost, I’m not as rich as I want to be – LOL!), but more specifically, I think this perspective speaks to my quasi-joke that wealth validates basically anything, including (perhaps especially) the “artist lifestyle.” Just in case you have no idea what I’m talking about:
SCENE: At a “bar” in a Washington, D.C.:

Attractive Adam: [politely conversating] So, what do you do?

Boho Bert: I’m an artist, a mixed-media visual artist.

Attractive Adam: [still polite]: Are you able to make a living off of art?

Boho Bert: I’m rich.

Attractive Adam: [very interested]: Ooohhhhhh!

This is similar to the other “joke” about the hard-nosed and successful steel tycoon, who, upon retirement, takes up watercolor painting. He is way into it, and spends the remaining of his twilight decades in a pastel reverie. He is an pedestrian painter, and maybe he even hated “art” until now, but his newly blossomed aesthetic inclinations elicit a certain astonishment and admiration from all who know him.

Contrast this with a young woman who spends the flower of her youth painting bad watercolors because she feels – no! no, no – knows – that she is an artist. This young woman’s commitment to beauty is not impressive. Without the pile of money, she is wasting her life.
I suppose it is the context of the old millionaire’s history that makes his desire to create so commendable. But I think that underscores the fact that the creation and appreciation of art is peripheral, perhaps vestigial, to material and social success.

After all this, reading the following anecdotes on Orwell’s Wikipedia entry made me wonder if Mr. Orwell doesn’t share my boiling sense of ressentiment at not being properly compensated by his culture, but then masking it with antiestablishmentarianism:

Shelden noted Orwell’s obsessive belief in his failure, and the deep inadequacy haunting him through his career:

Playing the loser was a form of revenge against the winners, a way of repudiating the corrupt nature of conventional success – the scheming, the greed, the sacrifice of principles. Yet, it was also a form of self-rebuke, a way of keeping one’s own pride and ambition in check.[26]

According to T.R. Fyvel:

His crucial experience … was his struggle to turn himself into a writer, one which led through long periods of poverty, failure and humiliation, and about which he has written almost nothing directly. The sweat and agony was less in the slum-life than in the effort to turn the experience into literature.[27]

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